Dairyland 420-kW solar project in background and Vernon 244-kW community solar garden project in foreground. Both projects located near Vernon’s headquarters in Westby, Wisconsin.

Co-ops Cooperate on the Solar Journey

Dec. 5, 2018
Planning for the future, Dairyland Power Cooperative continues to evaluate adding renewable energy to the generation mix.

Wisconsin is known for its long, cold winters, not sunshine. It certainly is not the first place people think of in the United States when discussing solar generation. Nor is it known as an energy state, as most of its energy resources are imported. When Dairyland Power Cooperative decided to add solar generation to its system, it was not trying to change people’s impression of Wisconsin. Rather, the utility was listening to its membership’s interest in renewable resources and staying true to its vision of being a safe, sustainable premier power co-op.

Environmental stewardship is a core value at Dairyland, tied to the utility’s strong commitment to the well-being of the region it serves. Stewardship takes many forms at the utility: bluff-land preservation, erosion mitigation and fish habitat restoration projects; park and hiking trail enhancements; peregrine falcon nesting sites; a green fleet of low-emission business vehicles; and renewable energy resources.

Dairyland is committed to diversifying its generating resources. It made significant additions of renewable energy in 2017 with the 98-MW Quilt Block Wind Farm in Wisconsin, 80-MW Barton II Wind Farm in Iowa and about 30 MW (all solar ratings are in alternating current) of co-op- and member-driven solar projects. In addition, it announced a partnership with Minnesota Power to build a 550-MW combined-cycle natural gas facility near Superior, Wisconsin, by 2025. A primary reason for the new facility is to help support the integration of renewable energy.

Increased Load

Dairyland provides the wholesale electrical requirements and other services for 24 member electric distribution co-ops and 17 municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. The Dairyland system serves about 262,000 members, with a total population of approximately 600,000 residents. Nearly 94% of members are residential or farms and account for about 63% of member retail megawatt-hour sales. Industrial and commercial loads are about 5% of members and account for approximately 35% of member retail megawatt-hour sales. The rest of sales consist of irrigation loads, streetlighting and sales to other entities.

The Dairyland system reached a new all-time peak load of 1171 MW on June 29, 2018, surpassing the former all-time peak record of 1061 MW, set in 2012. Of Dairyland’s 24 member co-ops, 22 saw increased peaks in their service territory on June 29, with five of the co-ops experiencing more than a 10% increase in load.

Road to Solar

In 2007, solar generation on Dairyland’s system consisted of 18 residential solar projects. By 2011, it had grown to 199 and, by 2017, the total had reached 1208 residential solar projects with a total nameplate capacity of 10.7 MW. The projects are administered by the 24 member co-ops.

The first nonresidential-sized solar project was the 37-kW U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project in April 2011 at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge near Necedah, Wisconsin, interconnected to the Oakdale Electric Cooperative system. The second nonresidential-sized solar project was the 294-kW City of Galena wastewater treatment plant in September 2012 in Galena, Illinois, interconnected to the Jo-Carroll Energy system. Both systems have power purchase agreements (PPAs) with Dairyland for the output. These systems gave Dairyland direct experience with solar projects and solar developers that residential projects did not.

In 2013, Dairyland issued a request for proposals (RFP) for two 400-kW solar projects. The utility evaluated sample RFPs from other utilities to use as a template for its RFP. The sample RFPs ranged from very simple to very complex. Dairyland’s RFP highlighted the factors that were important to the co-op: the project summary, proposer and project team, location within the Dairyland service territory, energy analysis, interconnection and deliverability, regulatory and environmental compliance, financial status and structure, pricing information and terms, schedule and commercial operation date. The other details were left to the discretion of the developers: ownership arrangement, site location, equipment and project viability. Eighteen bidders with a total of 63 sites responded to the RFP. Some proposals were eliminated quickly for being outside of Dairyland’s service territory or well above the 400-kW size specified. Two proposals were accepted:

  • Minnesota-Three LLC proposed a 414-kW project located near People’s Energy Cooperative in Oronoco, Minnesota.
  • Clean Energy Collective (CEC) proposed a 416-kW project located near Vernon Electric Cooperative in Westby, Wisconsin.

A primary deciding factor for both sites was the locations being near a main highway, where the projects would be readily visible to members. Both projects became operational in the summer of 2014.

The CEC project afforded Vernon the opportunity to develop a 244-kW community solar garden for its members, with CEC as the developer. This project marked the start of Dairyland member co-ops developing solar projects for their members. Currently, 20 member co-ops have solar projects. There are 16 community solar projects and six projects that benefit all the co-op’s members. These 22 projects total 4.4 MW.

Solar for Schools

In 2015, Dairyland issued an RFP — led by Jeff Springer, the energy efficiency and technical services manager — seeking an experienced contractor to procure, install and maintain a fixed-panel, pole-mounted solar system at select local schools. Renewable energy produced by the solar arrays would help power the schools, partially offsetting facility energy use.

Four area schools were selected for the 10-kW projects: Alma Area School, Cochrane-Fountain City School, DeSoto Area Middle and High School, and Western Technical College. Each school has access to online monitoring for teaching purposes. The data acquisition system enables teachers and students to monitor the total and hourly output of the array, environmental benefits delivered and many other metrics.

Demonstrating Leadership

Completion of the Minnesota-Three LLC and CEC projects helped Dairyland’s senior management, led by President and CEO Barb Nick, and the board of directors, led by Chairman Roger Tjarks from Heartland Power Cooperative, to decide that adding 25 MW of solar generation would be the next step in Dairyland’s sustainability goal. Put into perspective, this was effectively doubling the amount of existing solar in Wisconsin. With only about 5% of the total retail sales in Wisconsin, this represented a significant undertaking for a co-op. Dairyland put together a team, led by John Carr, vice president of strategic planning, and Craig Harmes, business development manager, with members from strategic planning, electrical engineering, technical services and finance to oversee this program.

The team met regularly for more than a year to discuss key aspects of what it would take to add significant solar generation to the system. Would Dairyland engineer, procure and construct (EPC) it? Would Dairyland benefit from ownership of it? Would it be better for Dairyland to have a contractor build it for the utility? Would it be a single project or multiple smaller projects? Where would it be located? Plus, multiple other questions Dairyland had to work through before deciding on a course of action.

Dairyland decided issuing an RFP for a developer to own, build and maintain the solar generation was the most prudent course of action. The utility would not benefit from any production tax or investment tax credits, nor did it have the in-house experience to EPC this.

Developing the RFP brought new challenges for Dairyland to consider. Instead of specifying a project size, the RFP asked for a total of up to 25 MW. That could have meant one project or a combination of smaller projects with one developer or multiple developers. It meant subjective benefits — such as delaying transmission or distribution lines, decreased transmission tariffs, power quality and geographic diversity — had to be considered for each bid.

Dairyland issued the RFP on June 4, 2015. “This RFP is a critical component of Dairyland’s strategic direction to diversify our generation portfolio. I like to say that it is finally solar energy’s day in the sun. Technology is improving, costs are decreasing and member interest continues to grow,” stated Dairyland President and CEO Nick.

Dairyland did not have an established list of approved solar contractors. Dairyland used the news services and various publications to get the RFP out to potential bidders. Thirty bidders with more than 120 sites totaling more than 440 MWac responded to the RFP. Bidders ranged from small local companies to large corporations. Some bidders were known to Dairyland, but most were unknown entities. Bids ranged in length from 10 pages to more than 1000 pages.

RFP Evaluation

Dairyland engaged Clearspring Energy Advisors LLC, led by Douglas Carlson, to evaluate the bids concurrently. The utility evaluated the bids based on size, location, technology and pricing. Clearspring confirmed Dairyland’s evaluation and helped to reduce concerns for bias and any potential conflicts of interest. A shortlist of bidders was developed and ranked by Dairyland and Clearspring. The bid evaluation process lasted about two months.

The next phase involved piecing the bids together to assemble 25 MW of solar projects. With more than 300 distribution substations on its system, Dairyland decided to limit the project size to 60% of the substation megavolt-ampere rating. This was done to avoid lengthy site and engineering evaluations of each potential bid. One acceptable bidder had proposed a 25-MW system near a 10-MVA substation. When asked to reduce the size of the system, the bidder declined and withdrew from consideration. Another bidder offered a 5-MW and 15-MW project. When informed the 15-MW system would not be accepted, the bidder withdrew from consideration.

After a month of effort, a package of 25 MW was put together involving three bidders and multiple locations. Projects were identified in the 0.5-MW to 5-MW size. The 5-MW project would be the largest solar project developed in Wisconsin. Dairyland issued a standard PPA to all three bidders to ensure equal treatment. One bidder, for its own reasons, decided to withdraw from consideration, eliminating the 5-MW system and others from consideration.

ENGIE (formerly known as SoCore), led by Laura Caspari, developed a bid in conjunction with Distribu-Gen Cooperative (DG). DG is a Wisconsin co-op association that assists its members in obtaining, using and marketing distributed generation products and services. The primary members of DG are the Dairyland Class A member co-ops led by Michael Schaefer at Taylor Electric Cooperative and Shannon Clark at Richland Electric Cooperative. ENGIE and DG originally proposed 25 MW of smaller distributed projects. Dairyland requested they reduce the number and size of their bid, and they responded with 11 sites totaling 13.2 MW. After the 5-MW bidder dropped out, Dairyland requested ENGIE add more sites, and it responded with three sites and 4.8 MW. This brought the initial round of projects to 15 sites totaling 20.5 MW.

EDF Renewables, formerly Global Resource Options (dba groSolar), bid a 2.5-MW project near Phillips, Wisconsin, in Price Electric Cooperative’s service territory. This project would become the largest solar project to date in Wisconsin. CMS Energy is the owner of the project.

Construction for these projects started May 23, 2016, with the groundbreaking ceremony for the 0.5-MW Ash Ridge Solar project in Richland Energy Cooperative’s service territory near Viola, Wisconsin. ENGIE also built the Transition Energy community solar project for Richland. Transition Energy provides an opportunity for interested members to purchase the energy output of solar panels and have it applied to the energy usage at their home, farm or business. Richland’s Clark stated, “This solar project is another example of how member-driven cooperatives work together to accomplish great things”.

All the projects used ground-mounted, single-tracker arrays and were completed by the end of 2017. The single-tracker arrays were expected to increase energy production by about 10% over fixed arrays. The forecasted 2018 energy production from these sites was 36,000 MWh. As of July 2018, energy production was on track to meet the forecast.

Pollinator Gardens

Pollinator gardens are being created at all 18 of the solar energy facilities. ENGIE and EDF Renewables are using native seed mixes of grasses and flowers to create beneficial bee and butterfly habitat at each site. When complete, a total of nearly 250 acres (101 hectares) of new pollinator habitat will be established.

Dairyland also is moving forward with plans to create a pollinator habitat at three of its substations. The utility is a founding member of the Electric Power Research Institute’s Power-in Pollinator, which is the largest pollinator collaboration in North America. Dairyland is dedicated to protecting natural resources through sustainable practices and environmental stewardship.

Cooperation of Cooperatives

Successful projects like this take the cooperation and dedication of many organizations and individuals: Dairyland management, board of directors and staff; consultants; developers; and, especially, member co-ops. The sixth cooperative principle at Dairyland is cooperation among cooperatives, and its 24 member co-ops demonstrated this by first helping potential bidders to identify sites and second working with ENGIE to develop a bid that met Dairyland’s needs. Dairyland’s second cooperative principle is democratic member control and its seventh is concern for community. Dairyland membership’s interest in renewable energy encouraged the utility to move into solar generation. The utility and its member co-ops worked together for the sustainable development of their communities through policies supported by the membership. The 40 MW of solar generation generates about 70,000 MWh annually and meets the needs of about 5000 residential members.

Dairyland continues to evaluate additional renewable energy to add to its mix of coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, landfill gas, anaerobic digesters, and wind and solar generation as it plans for the future.

John M. McWilliams ([email protected]m), PE, is a senior resource planning engineer for Dairyland Power Cooperative. His experience includes construction, international sales and development, renewable energy and resource planning. He holds BSEE and master’s degrees in systems engineering from Iowa State University and an MBA degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is a senior member of the IEEE-HKN honor society and an ABET program evaluator for electrical engineering.

For more information:

CEC | www.cleanenergyco.com
Clearspring | http://clearspringenergy.com
Dairyland | www.dairylandpower.com
EDF Renewables | www.edf-re.com
ENGIE | www.engie.com
Minnesota Power | www.mnpower.com
Minnesota-Three LLC

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